The Frolic of the Beasts

First published in 1961, Yukio Mishima’s novel The Frolic of the Beasts (Translated by Andrew Clare. New York: Vintage Books. November 2018) was only recently translated into English in 2018. It is a short work, reminding me of Mishima’s more well-crafted novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which was first published in 1963 and then translated into English two years afterwards. Both stories deal with themes of aberrant love, moral transgression, murder and nihilism, but whereas The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea exhibits an elegant and graceful style, The Frolic of the Beasts is rather clunky and jagged in form. Since I don’t read Japanese, I’m not sure how much of this has to do with the original text and how much is related to the English translation.

The story begins with a prologue describing a photograph of three smiling figures – Yuko, Ippei and Koji – whose apparent happiness, we are told, conflicts with a “wretched incident” that will take place only a few days later. The photo was snapped at the harbor of a fishing village where the three characters live. Yuko and Ippei are married and own five greenhouse gardens near the village where they grow plants and produce for sale. Koji works for them; but there seems to be something secret and unspeakably intimate about the relationship he shares with his employers. This intimacy is confirmed by the photograph and then, at the close of the prologue, with the description of three grave markers that have been erected, against the wishes of villagers, in the local cemetery. Ippei’s grave lies on the right, Koji’s grave is on the left, and Yuko’s grave sits between them as a “reserved monument.” Ippei and Koji, it appears, have died, while Yuko is still alive, but anticipating death; and there is some sort of outrage involving the three that has scandalized the village residents.

The story unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards as the hidden secret alluded to in the prologue is slowly revealed. In Chapter 1, Koji is released from prison and returns to the fishing village of Iro where he is met by Yuko at the port upon his arrival. On the boat ride to Iro, Koji repeatedly thinks to himself “I have repented,” but when he meets Yuko, her first words to him are, “You haven’t changed.” She repeats this phrase as the two of them stop for lunch. “You haven’t changed one little bit,” she says to Koji, and he thinks to himself, “They were frightening words” (p. 22). The reader starts to understand that Koji has committed some sort of crime that has disrupted not only his own life, but the course of Yuko’s life as well. Koji longs for an assurance that he is different than he was before his incarceration – that he is reformed – but Yuko sees in him the same person that was always there: someone capable of violence. And yet, she is not afraid or repulsed by him. Rather, she seems protective of, and in fact attracted to, this young man. Yuko has even insisted upon becoming Koji’s legal guardian upon his release.

The two of them walk through the village, and while Koji starts to feel a sense of shame, Yuko commands him to hold his head high as they pass by the villagers who know about his crime. Eventually, they arrive at Yuko’s house where a fearful Koji is greeted by Ippei.

Ippei was a German literature scholar who once worked as a lecturer before inheriting his parents’ ceramics shop in Ginza. Koji was one of his students, hired to work in the shop. Upon becoming his employee, Koji discovered that Ippei, who is married to Yuko, was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs; something that his wife knew about but tolerated. In Koji’s eyes, “Ippei had everything.” In addition to having a beautiful wife and girlfriends, he was educated, intelligent, wore expensive Italian suits and went to exclusive hair salons. On the other hand, Ippei admired Koji for his youth; in particular his “ability to fight and express anger.” “Old age is all that awaits you. There is nothing other than that,” (p. 29) he told Koji, seemingly encouraging his young employee to grab hold of life while he could. Indeed this is what Koji did, falling in love with Yoku and beginning a secret affair with her.

While out with Yoku one day, Koji discovered a heavy, black wrench laying on the ground. Not really understanding why, he picked it up and put it in his jacket pocket. Reflecting upon this later while imprisoned, he interprets the incident as having some sort of metaphysical importance. Koji concludes that it was not he who actually decided to pick up the wrench, but rather that the wrench itself was a manifestation of some primal “will” that had become concrete and which sought to throw the order of reality into chaos. This section of Chapter 2 immediately brought the ideas of Schopenhauer to mind. Schopenhauer, of course, considered all things in the world to be manifestations of an underlying, unitary will, but this cosmic will was neither benevolent nor moral. Rather, it was energetic, violent and cruel. It would make sense that Koji, a student of German literature, would be familiar with these ideas and thus come, in retrospect, to understand the black wrench as the embodiment of a force that seeks to disrupt his world.

And this wrench does indeed change the course of things. When Yoku and Koji walk in on Ippei and his lover Machiko engaged in a romantic rendezvous, Yoku becomes upset and Ippei strikes her across the face. Koji’s inner feelings are confused as he observes all of this. “…he wasn’t sure whom he hated” (p. 49). He longs for this confrontation to lead to some sort of epiphany, a pulling away of the veil that will lead to the revelation of the raw perversity of human nature, but instead all he sees is “nothing other than things he had grown utterly tired of seeing: the mediocre concealment of human shame, the irony of keeping up appearances” (p. 47). This disappoints him. The concrete discovery of her husband’s infidelity, which Yoku knew about all along, is not greeted by her with the “delight” of one who has finally revealed a long suspected truth; instead she reacts in the stereotypical way that a spurned wife is expected to act. At this, Koji recoils instinctively and finds himself compelled to correct things by taking an action that will impart lasting and profound significance to this moment. He reaches into his pocket, grabs the wrench and strikes Ippei repeatedly in the head.

In Chapter 3 we learn about the aftermath of the attack on Ippei. The blows he delivered caused severe brain damage, reducing Ippei to a passive and persistently grinning idiot who needs to be cared for by his wife. This is the crime for which Koji was incarcerated, and though he tells himself that he has “repented,” he nevertheless also feels as if this act of violence was a necessary corrective to the ugly, stupid and senseless reality that would otherwise have been the destiny of these three people:

At the time, I could no longer endure that putrid world; a world bereft of logic. It was necessary that I impart some logic into that world of pig’s entrails. And so you see, I imparted the cold, hard, black logic of iron. Namely, the logic of the wrench. (p. 51).

The “logic of the wrench” defies the nihilistic meaninglessness of reality. It is an attempt willfully to alter the course of nature so that these three characters will no longer be doomed to the mediocrity of conventional, forgettable lives. While they may be demonized, pitied and reviled by others, “the logic of the wrench” assures that they will not be easily forgotten as boring, faceless, run-of-the-mill drones that are merely part of the herd.

Following his incarceration, Koji settles into life with Ippei and Yoku, working in their greenhouses alongside Teijiro, one of the couple’s other employees. One day, he accompanies Yuko and Ippei on a hike to a waterfall in order to make an offering at a sacred shrine. Koji thinks about how happy he is in this peaceful setting, but the hike is rather strenuous, Ippei becomes tired, and Yoku, upon their arrival at the shrine, begins to speak and act disrespectfully and sacrilegiously. She complains that the shrine itself is “dull” and “small,” and then starts to taunt her husband by asking him if he even understands the concept of sacrifice. Ippei seems confused, but Yuko persists, trying to get him to pronounce the word “sacrifice.” When he is unable to do so, she asks him if he understands what a “kiss” is and then grabs Koji, embracing him passionately as her husband watches. This enrages Koji, who slaps Yoku across the face and then turns to face Ippei, who stands passive and silent, that ever present grin fixed to his face. It is a look that terrifies Koji, and in order to escape this fear, he once again embraces Yoku.

Chapter 4 begins with Koji drinking alone one night in the only bar in Iro. It is here that he meets up with two young men – Matsukichi and Kioyshi – and the beautiful daughter of his co-worker Teijiro; a young woman named Kimi. Kimi is on vacation from her factory job, but oddly she does not stay with her father, nor does she spend any time with him. In the past, after the death of her mother, she had seemed to be quite happy living together with her father, but then, quite suddenly Kimi left home, and it became apparent that there had been some sort of falling out.

Koji sits with his three friends in the bar, becoming more and more drunk. Finally, the three young men leave with Kimi and take a row boat out to a small island where they go swimming and then dry off by a campfire. Matsukichi and Kioyshi steal Kimi’s ukulele, which they see as a symbol of her love, and row away, leaving Koji and Kimi stranded on the island together. At the campfire, Kimi tells Koji that she knows he really loves Yuko, but that “just for this one night she was prepared to make a sacrifice and act as a stand-in” (p. 99). But as they have sex, Koji thinks to himself how the experience is “nothing but a poor imitation,” not of Yuko, but of the idealized sexual images that he had conjured up in his imagination while in prison. Here we find yet another indication of the nihilistic theme at the center of the story.

The nihilist considers all existent things to be substandard and flawed when compared to the superlative ideals that human beings are capable of imagining. On earth, there is no such thing as perfect Truth or Justice or Beauty, and so reality as it exists is always defective, ugly and deficient. The only perfections that exist are idealizations, and, disappointingly, the ideal is always incapable of becoming real. Thus, Kimi’s actual beauty is a “poor imitation” of real Beauty, and at the end of the chapter Koji reflects on how the sandals she has left on the island will eventually decay, being “transformed into a dwelling place for an infestation of sea lice,” finally melting “into the great multitude of unearthly, formless material phenomena that exist on earth” (p. 101). Reality is a raw, unformed, ugly, meaningless mass of matter. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, the world of physical existence is an existence that is “in-itself.” It is a vast absurdity that means nothing at all until human beings exert their willful interpretational efforts to make something out of the nothing; just as Koji did with his wrench. But even those human interpretations are ephemeral, doomed to decay and to die along with the people who formulated them. Nature is ugly and meaningless, and the best thing that a human can do in life is to commit crimes against nature in defiance of its absurdity.

The ugliness of reality is further unveiled in Chapter 5. Before Kimi leaves to go back to her factory job, her father, Teijiro, proudly confesses to Koji that shortly after the death of his wife, he raped Kimi, his own daughter, and this is why she hates him. Teijiro produces a photograph that he bought in Tokyo of a young school girl and a young school boy having sex. Smiling, he says to Koji, “What do you think? It looks a bit like her, doesn’t it?” (p. 108). Teijiro – like Ippei and Koji – is a criminal. In confessing his own crime, he expects Koji, who has also slept with Kimi, to participate in his perverted sexual titillation. It is an attempt to share a bond of corruption with Koji in whom he recognizes a kindred, aberrant spirit. But Koji is still resistant. He is still convinced that he has “repented.”

When Kimi stops to say goodbye, Yoku is present, and Koji senses that she is jealous. But, as it turns out, she is not at all jealous of the sexual affair that he has had with Kimi. She is jealous of Koji’s crime:

Yuko’s jealousy was directed not at Kimi, who was of no importance. It was directed, she said, at Koji’s crime.

The anguish she felt at not having a crime to her name like the one he committed had grown in intensity. Ever since the picnic that day at the waterfall, this thought had rooted itself blackly in her mind – she wanted to compete with Koji’s crime, to somehow be able to own a crime like his in order to at least stand beside him. (p. 119)

Yoku is the only one who possesses no crime of her own, and because of this, she feels lacking and weak. She is the only one in her household who has not willfully challenged the conventional course of life, but rather has simply allowed herself to be swept along by the actions of others. In order to correct this, she must commit a willful transgression against morality.

The story comes to a crescendo when, on a walk with Ippei, Koji confronts his former teacher and accuses him of being a “hollow cavern,” and an “empty hole” (p. 140) around which the entire household revolves. This former scholar has lost all inner thought. He is a perpetually grinning nothing that everyone else must cater to. He has become a being-in-itself, a dumb, ugly force of nature, propelled by inertia and necessity rather than by willful desire. Like a black hole, he sucks everyone around him into his orbit, in the process also sucking the energy out of their lives. However, as Ippei becomes increasingly agitated, it becomes apparent that there is some sort of willful, inner consciousness still alive within him. “What is it you want?” Koji asks, and finally Ippei responds, “Death. I want to die” (p. 144).

The book ends with a first-person epilogue in which a researcher recounts his visit to the town of Iro and his meeting with a priest who recounts his memories of Yuko, Ippei and Koji. The priest recalls how at dawn on a particular day, Yuko and Koji appeared at his temple, hand-in-hand, looking like a bride and groom. They confessed to him that they had strangled Ippei to death. The priest shows the researcher the photograph described in the book’s prologue, and explains that Koji had given it to him the day before the murder. This was used as evidence of premeditation in his court trial, and so Koji was sentenced to death, while Yuko was sentenced to be imprisoned for life. While in prison, Yuko and Koji requested that the priest arrange for three graves to be established in which Yuko would be buried between Ippei and Koji. The priest gives the researcher a photograph of the grave markers, and he in turn visits Yoku in prison, passing the photo along to her. She now can be assured that she has committed a crime that justifies her lying alongside her husband and her lover for eternity.

The Frolic of the Beasts echoes themes that are found in many of Yukio Mishima’s major works, like The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the Sea of Fertility. Like these other books, it is a nihilistic tragedy in which the main characters struggle, suffer and ultimately die in the vain attempt to impose their ideals onto a meaningless and resistant world. Their actions take the form of crimes against conventional morality precisely because it is conventional morality that serves to keep individuals tied to an everyday, normal and unexceptional way of life. In order actively to break free from passive mediocrity, the characters in Mishima’s stories find that they must challenge the world as it has been given. The given world – the world in-itself – is an ugly, meaningless nothing that absorbs and dissipates all human effort. It is like the ocean, which provides a dark and threatening backdrop to The Frolic of the Beasts (as well as to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea). The ocean serves as a symbol of Being itself; a dark, formless and flowing reality giving rise to, and then reabsorbing, all worldly phenomena. Like waves that erupt on the surface of the sea and then melt back into the depths, individual human lives erupt forth from Being, struggle for a short time to make something of their short existence, and then are inexorably vanquished back into the formless void.

In Mishima’s stories, just as in his own life, individual perversion, crime and depravity become acts of defiance against a meaningless world. Though human existence is impermanent, at least crimes against nature can potentially leave a lasting scar on the face of Being.

 

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Anita Silvers: 1940 – 2019

I just learned that Anitia Silvers, one of my professors at SF State, passed away. Dr. Silvers sat on my MA thesis committee in the early 1990’s and was the instructor for “Postmodernism and Valuing,” one of the most memorable seminars I took as a graduate student at SFSU.

In later years, I would regularly see her at philosophy conferences. One on my fondest memories of Anita is from 2005 when I was attending an APA Conference in Portland, OR. I was walking down the street, looking for Powell’s Bookstore, and she came whizzing up to me out of the blue in her electric wheelchair. “Hi John! Are you lost?” she asked. When I told her that I was trying to find Powell’s, she said, “Follow me!” and zipped down the sidewalk, with me running full-speed behind her, leading me to my destination.

Here’s her obituary, from the Philosophy Department at SFSU:

Professor Anita Silvers died on the morning of March 14, 2019, of complications of pneumonia. Silvers was an institution in professional philosophy. She was Professor and former Chair of the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a nationally recognized advocate for disability rights. Disabled by polio as a child, Silvers was a leading advocate for equality for persons with disabilities. On the faculty at SF State since 1967, Silvers worked to make access and disability services available on California college campuses. In 1980, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the National Council for the Humanities, the governing board of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She served for 26 years as Secretary-Treasurer of the American Philosophical Association (Pacific Division). Silvers received the inaugural California Faculty Association Human Rights Award in 1989 and served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand in 2005. In 2009 she was awarded the Quinn Prize for service to the profession by the APA, in 2013 the Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution by Phi Beta Kappa and the APA, and in 2017 she received the Wang Family Excellence Award for extraordinary achievements in the California State University system. Silvers’s groundbreaking scholarship helped to establish disability rights as an important subfield of philosophy; she is regarded as an authority on medical ethics, bioethics, disability theory, social philosophy, aesthetics, and feminism. As a teacher and mentor she changed the lives of countless students, scholars, and activists. She will be deeply missed by her students, colleagues, and the many people she inspired.

A memorial will be announced at a later date.

 

The Nihilist @ Bound Together

I dropped by Bound Together Books in San Francisco on Sunday and was pleased to find that my novel The Nihilist has continued to do good sales. I’ve sold books and fanzines through this store for decades, and I hope to continue supporting them for a long time into the future. It’s one of my favorite bookstores anywhere!

Meditations on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Long ago, I identified a cyclical pattern in my moods. Feelings of sadness and despair, which are attached to no particular set of external facts or circumstances, regularly overtake me after periods of contentment and relative happiness. I feel fine – even optimistic – and then the darkness encroaches, occasioned by no apparent, objective changes in the environment. This is all part of an ongoing, internal dispositional rotation where light fades to dark and then dark brightens to light. And round and round it goes.

The thoughts that accompany my dark periods are always the same: Everything comes to an end; everyone I know and love will eventually die; I will eventually die; so what’s the point? When in the midst of this feeling, distraction is ineffective. The mood itself stains everything that comes to my attention. It acts like a lens that colors and taints all things. I try to watch TV, and I think how I’m wasting what little time I have. I go for a run, and I think how there will be a time when I will be too old and frail to go running. I busy myself with cleaning the house and I think about how eventually the house will decay into nothingness. Distraction doesn’t work. The cycle needs to be ridden out. Despair demands its say.

The despair has returned this winter season, but this time around I’ve found new comfort in Marcus Aurelius. With his Meditations I’ve encountered a man who articulates many of the feelings and thoughts that drift round and round in my mind during dark spells. And it is not so much his stoic suggestions for how to deal with despair that appeal to me. Rather I’m comforted by the simple fact that this Roman emperor living in the 2nd Century AD – a man so different from me in most ways – shares my feelings and is unashamed of confessing to them. Reading Meditations makes me feel like I’m in the presence of someone I understand and who, if he was around today, would understand me.

Meditations opens with a litany of those to whom Aurelius feels gratitude: everyone from his grandfather to the gods. This first chapter chronicles the qualities of character and the lessons he learned from those he has encountered in life. From his grandfather he has learned “good morals” (I:1), from Sextus “good humor” (I:9), from his father “mildness of temper” (I:16). He thanks the gods for giving him “good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good” (I:17). In sum, he is grateful for the life he has been born into. He considers his world to be good overall.

Reading this list, I’m left with the impression that Aurelius is consciously and systematically going through a ritual that I also go through when I’m feeling low. Any ritual is intended to help us avoid forgetting, to help us remember that which we are in danger of overlooking. This being the case, rituals are premised on the concern that something has been neglected in life and that one needs to set aside time to recall what is really important. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, the ritual of listing all of the people to whom he owes gratitude seems to be an indication of simmering discontent. I suspect his eagerness to remember all that is good in the world is spurred by a desire to combat frustration with all of the evil that he is consciously preoccupied by.

I find myself carrying out the same exercise when I hit my dark, low points. When I worry that I’m being overly negative about life, or that I am being self-indulgent with my despairing feelings, I self consciously reflect on all of the things that I should be happy about. I have a good job that is secure and that I enjoy. I have a wife, a sister, family members and friends that I love. I have a home. I have philosophy. But all of this self-reflection is only necessary at points when the meaningfulness of these very same things has already been called into question. When there is no question of life’s worth, I simply love my wife, sister, family and friends. I live with purpose and enthusiasm, without question. It is only when doubt creeps in that I’m driven to engage in the ritual of listing all of the things for which I should be grateful. Engagement in this ritual is a sign that something is amiss and needs to be corrected.

In Chapter II of Meditations, we get our first indication of what it is that is troubling Aurelius. He is experiencing discontent with the tedious and seemingly meaningless distractions that divert him from what is really important in his life. There are those around him that are busybodies, those that are ungrateful and arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial and violent (II: 1;6). These sorts of people threaten to derail him and to entangle him in pettiness, inflaming his emotions to the point that he wastes time, energy and, indeed, his life fighting meaningless battles. “Do things external which happen to you distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around” (II:7). Like Nietzsche, Aurelius is here warning himself to avoid the poisoning effects of psychological resentment. When we become distracted by the shortcomings of others, we ourselves run the risk of becoming bitter and angry; and when this happens everything in the world around us becomes colored by our own bitter and angry perspective. The world starts to seem awful, not good at all. In this way we distort reality and create our own hell.

But, Aurelius reminds himself, we only have one life to live. “Since it is possible that you may be quitting life this very moment, govern every act and thought accordingly” (II:11). We are finite beings who are destined to die, and we don’t know exactly when we will expire. Do you want to live your short life in hell, or do you want to experience happiness? If you desire happiness, then you need to grab hold of your situation and live as if each and every act that you perform is your last, imbuing everything you do with meaning and purpose. Don’t waste time on superficialities or on pettiness. Focus on and embrace that which you think is really important. Be unconcerned with the shortcomings of others and strive to make yourself into the image of what you truly wish to be. This requires periods of reflection, for “he who does not observe the movements of his own mind must of necessity be unhappy” (II:8), but it also requires self-discipline and resolute action in the world. A good, happy life is a socially engaged, philosophical life.

Don’t waste your life. This is something I find myself repeating like a mantra at those times when the darkness encroaches and motivation wanes. “Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives” (II:14). It is a mistake to think that more life would change anything. Whether you lived 50 years or 3 million years, you would still be a finite creature who must do something – anything – while you are alive. Your finite life is what you make it, and it really is within your power to mold it according to your own ideals.

Chapter III reinforces the point that no matter how long we live, we are all destined to die and so we should make the most of the time we have. This is especially important, according to Aurelius, because it is a sad fact about humans that the older we get, the more likely it becomes that we will lose the full use of our rational, mental capacities. As we age, our minds tend to deteriorate first, before the body, and so it is uncertain that the “mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation” (III:1). As we lose our rational capacities, we lose the power to make willful choices and so we begin to drift in the direction of dependence on others. If our bodies outlast our minds, then we become objects, buffeted about by the willful actions of those around us. We lose the ability to mold the remainder of our existence and thus we forfeit that duty to others.

This thought terrifies me. After having seen some of my own family members drift into the clutches of dementia, I know how quickly self-sufficiency can disappear. My mother needed constant care until her body gave out. My aunt still lingers in an elder care facility, unable to articulate a coherent thought or to communicate her wishes to anyone. When they possessed their full mental capacities, neither my mother nor my aunt would have chosen this sort of conclusion to their lives, but neither of them, when in control of their mental faculties, put in place mechanisms that would have avoided what eventually came to be. Now I lie awake at night worrying about what will happen to me when my own mind starts to slip away. If it turns out that I am the last in my family to survive, what will happen? I fear becoming dependent upon strangers who are rarely kind, but often cruel. Now is the time to make the rational decisions that will allow life to come to an end in a way that can be embraced rather than feared.

The remaining chapters of Meditations (IV – XII) place individual human existence into a cosmic context that Aurelius suggests should give us comfort when contemplating our ultimate fate. Starting from the premise that “nothing comes out of nothing, just as nothing returns to nonexistence” (IV:4), Aurelius reasons that there is an eternal process of transmutation governing the universe of which human beings are a part. All things that come to be must emerge from some preexistent substance, and all things that decay and decline must melt back into that same substance. This process, since it is a part of nature itself, is just and good. It is only our irrational resistance to this process that makes it appear as if evil exists in nature. If we rationally embrace and passively submit to the eternal cycles of cosmic transmutation, then we will come to understand that, first, “nothing will happen to me which is not in harmony with the nature of the universe,” and second, “it is in my power never to act contrary to my god and divinity” (V:10). When we use our rational faculties to understand nature, we then can act in accordance with nature, accepting and embracing it as divine and good.

The universe is an organism, and we are parts of that organism. Our fate is tied to the whole, and so it is our duty to abide by our nature and play our role; just as our own hearts, stomachs and livers do in our bodies. The difference between our bodies and the universe as a whole, however, is that the universe is eternal but we are not. So, while “all parts of the universe are interwoven with one another,” it is also the case that “everything material soon disappears into the sum of being; and everything is soon taken back into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is soon overwhelmed in time” (VII:10). “Soon you will have forgotten all things; and soon all things will have forgotten you” (VII:21). For Aurelius, a rational person will understand this not as an occasion for despair, but as a liberating insight. Neither our individual lives nor our deaths are meaningless. They are integral aspects of the cosmos. Our lives and our deaths have a purpose in the grand scheme of things.

While I find Aurelius’ reflections in this part of the book fascinating and absorbing, I nonetheless am also skeptical. First, while his description of the eternal cycles of the universe might be true, I’m not completely convinced that it is. Second, even if his description is correct, it does not necessarily eradicate my own fear of death, but rather threatens to heighten it. After all, while saying that we are all organs in a cosmic body certainly does suggest we have a role to play, it also suggests that our own, individual hopes, fears and aspirations are worthless (and even destructive) apart from the aggregate. We could just as well say that we are cogs in a machine, highlighting our hopeless entanglement in a mechanical universe. But this is precisely one of the thoughts that goes round and round in my head during periods of mental despair. I am nothing but a cog, an ephemeral speck in the cosmic process. Hardly a comforting thought. Additionally, Aurelius’ metaphysics seems constructed precisely to alleviate his more concrete and down-to-earth experiences with mental suffering. But this raises a question: should we accept a doctrine just because it makes us feel better? It could be that the doctrine giving you the most comfort is also false, and I personally don’t want to accept false doctrines. I need some other evidence, argument or proof besides my own feeling of contentment. After all, there are plenty of religious systems that contradict Aurelius’ metaphysics that I could also believe in that would offer comfort. The point of philosophy is not just to alleviate despair. It needs to be motivated by a desire to know the truth.

Despite my skepticism about his metaphysics, the suggestions for life that Aurelius goes on to offer in the closing chapters of his book do resonate with me and do seem sensible. His central point is that you should “never mind what others think of you, and be content to live the rest of your life as nature wills” (VIII:1). This brings us back to the issue that was of concern at the start of his Mediations. Those “busybodies,” those “ungrateful,” “arrogant,” “deceitful,” “envious,” “unsocial” and “violent” people that often distract us from what we feel is good and right are to be ignored in favor of what our inner nature tells us to think and do. “Nature brings nothing that you cannot bear” (VII:46), and so we need to listen to our own conscience when determining how to navigate the world. Aurelius reminds us (and himself) that it is only our judgements about the world that cause distress. The world is what it is. There is nothing inherently wrong with objective reality. It is only our desire for things to be different from the way that they are that causes us to feel as if the universe is evil and unjust. But our judgments are within our power to change, and so it follows that we are capable of finding contentment and happiness by changing the way we think and judge reality.

And there is ultimately nothing new under the sun, according to Aurelius. The same patterns play themselves out with differing details eternally. “Consider that the things of the present also existed in times past…all the same plays, only with different actors” (X:27). On the one hand, this is hopeful, since it opens up the chance for us actually to discover the patterns of nature and to bring our mental judgements into alignment with nature’s design. In fact, according to Aurelius, by the age of 40 we have already “seen everything” (XI:1), and so by that age one is able to formulate a basic template for happy living. On the other hand, the thought that our lives are just part of some cosmic repetition can also lead to a sense of despair. Nietzsche observed that the idea of the “eternal return of the same” is an example of nihilism, and as such it can lead us to feel as if everything is meaningless and worthless. During my own dark periods, this is precisely how I tend to feel. Life is a tedious recurrence of the same old boring patterns. If it all came to an end here, nothing would be lost. It reminds me of the Warner Brother’s cartoon in which one of the characters exclaims, “Now I’ve seen everything!” and then blows his brains out with a pistol. If there is nothing more to see or learn, what’s the point of moving on?

But I must admit that when I transpose Aurelius’ cosmic vision of eternal recurrence into a psychological framework, things become more positive for me. As mentioned earlier, I long ago identified a pattern in the ebb and flow of my moods that repeats over and over again. This eternally recurring psychological pattern does give me some comfort insofar as it helps to place my own despair into a larger context within which I can anticipate an escape from the darkness; albeit a temporary one. Since I have come to realize that despair is part of an ongoing rhythm in which my moods fluctuate from dark to light, when I am in the midst of despondency I become confident that the next cycle will bring cheerfulness. Ironically then, I am at my most optimistic when I am my most despairing, for it is then that I have something to which I look forward. When I am in my most cheerful of moods, on the other hand, I find myself slipping into the pessimistic anticipation of encroaching sadness. And round and round it goes.

Whether the patterns of recurrence are cosmic or psychological, I find the specific points of advice with which Marcus Aurelius concludes his Meditations to be wise, useful and sensible. There are ten things he suggests that we keep in mind when dealing with others and when we are striving to perfect our lives (XI:19):

  1. We are social creatures, “made for one another.”
  2. We should remember that all of those in our communities are under the same sorts of inner compulsions as we are.
  3. We should be pleased when those around us do good, but we should understand that when they do wrong it is out of ignorance.
  4. We should remember that we ourselves often do wrong.
  5. We should remember that sometimes we do not know whether the actions of others are right or wrong. In those cases we should suspend our moral judgments.
  6. We should remember that we are all finite and will die.
  7. We should remember that it is our own opinions about others that cause us distress, and we are in control of our opinions.
  8. We should consider how much distress is caused by being “angry and vexed.”
  9. We should recognize that a benevolent disposition is powerful and can bring inner peace.
  10. We should recognize that it is “madness” to expect bad men not to do evil; and that it is irrational to allow bad men to do wrong to one another while thinking that they will not do wrong to us as well.

I must admit that even in the midst of my darkest moods, this advice makes sense to me.

While I’m not prepared to convert to Stoicism after reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, I am soothed by the fact that another human being, living in another place and time, has had many of the same troubling feelings and thoughts as I have. Perhaps this is a verification of Aurelius’ point. There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps we are all playing our parts in an eternally recurring drama in which only the actors are different. Perhaps.

Cinematic Nihilism Presentation at College of Marin

On October 26th I delivered a presentation on my new book, Cinematic Nihilism, at the College of Marin. This video of the presentation is about 56 minutes long and includes a group discussion at the end. Thanks to David Patterson, who both organized and filmed the event, as well as to everyone who attended!

The Pukes

The Pukes were one of the great Marin punk bands from the early 1980’s. There is very little online information about them, but someone on Youtube has just posted their demo tape:

Headed by lead singer Ricky Paul – who would vomit on demand while performing – The Pukes regularly played at the original Sleeping Lady Cafe in Fairfax, CA, as well as at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, and at many underground warehouse shows and parties in and around Marin County.

Ricky committed suicide in 1984 while attending the San Francisco Art Institute. His death affected all of us young Marin punks very deeply. It was, in fact, the first time that I myself had ever experienced the loss of a friend, and it was to have a permanent effect on me. I still often think about – and miss – Ricky to this very day. He was a sensitive, friendly and very smart guy.

I have a lot of warm, hilarious memories about Ricky. There was one time when I gave him a ride home from the College of Marin and, upon dropping him off, he attacked my car with a dead tree branch that he had found lying somewhere nearby. As I tried to speed away, he jumped in front of my car, bounced off the hood and rolled off into the street, coming to rest immobile on his back. I thought I had killed him, but when I ran to his aid, Ricky jumped up, laughing. He threw his arms around me and thanked me for the ride.

My wife remembers the first time she met Ricky. She was waiting at the bus stop when he came walking by. Upon seeing a fellow punk, Ricky greeted her, shouting “Hey! Punk rock!” He then sat down and offered to share his lunch with her: a tuna fish sandwich that he had carried to school.

A friend who knew Ricky, but had never seen him perform, attended a show at the Sleeping Lady Cafe one night. This friend was unprepared for the vomit launch that occurred about halfway through the set. He turned white and fled the club, later telling me that he would never be able to look at Ricky the same way again.

The Pukes continued on after the loss of Ricky, with Walter taking over as lead singer. Walter was a unique character, hilarious in a way different from Ricky. He fronted the “New” Pukes for quite some time, playing lots of shows with Sacripolitical in Marin and in San Francisco.

A memorial gathering took place in honor of Ricky at the Sleeping Lady Cafe after his death. Sacripolitical played, and just about every punk in Marin attended. People shared memories, tears and grief. For some of us who had personal grudges against one another, this was an opportunity to come together, forget old feuds, and affirm our solidarity in Ricky’s memory. We all loved him.

The Pukes @ College of Marin. 1983? Ricky Paul on the microphone.